Twelve months out from the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Ireland appeared the likeliest side to dethrone New Zealand. They had power and precision, confidence and know-how, steel and guts.
Fast forward to present day and the chances of the boys in green leaving Japan with the Webb Ellis trophy seem rather improbable.
Last November, Joe Schmidt’s team put in a stirring performance to down the All Blacks in Dublin, Jacob Stockdale crossing for the only try of the match. That monumental triumph had everyone suggesting they could be the next country to conquer the globe. A 57-15 drubbing at the hands of England on Saturday has led to claims that they’ll be lucky to make a first ever semi-final appearance.
Such assertions are over the top, merely knee-jerk reactions to a freak result. The Irish were dire at Twickenham – there is no argument to be made in that regard – but the defeat doesn’t end their hopes of glory in November.
If a squad can blitz their way to a Six Nations Grand Slam, they will always be in contention for a World Cup that comes just a year and a half later. They’ve proved their capabilities, it’s simply about getting them fit and firing for the main event. Knowing Schmidt, with his combination of tactical nous and strong motivational skills, Ireland are in a good hands as they look to rediscover their self-belief.
The Kiwi also has a fine collection of players at his disposal; should he succeed in getting them back on their feet, he will be left with a team that could threaten the very best in the world. There’s experience in the ranks, as well as raw talent. That’s a healthy mixture to have going into such a high-pressure situation.
In Tadgh Furlong, Schmidt has arguably the greatest tighthead on the planet. With Jack McGrath bolstering the left side of the front row, Iain Henderson adding energy behind, and the likes of CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony lurking on the flanks, it should be clear to see that this Irish side have a fearsome pack. What’s more, those five all played a role in the Lions against-all-odds draw with New Zealand in 2017. They can do it when the margin for error is zero, they can do it when under heavy scrutiny.
As we’ve mentioned, there are also young bolters involved. Lock James Ryan was colossal in 2018 and continues to stand out amongst teammates for tireless all-action displays. Josh van der Flier may be 26-years-old and sitting on just a handful of caps, but the Leinster forward will push hard for a starting berth as he aims to displace some of the old guard in the back row. There’s competition for places, a number of knowledgeable players and several wild cards looking to make an impact.
The qualities of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are well-documented; the half-back pairing pull all the strings for Schmidt, orchestrating play and manoeuvring Ireland into dangerous positions. They’re both available and that will always mean Ireland have a chance of victory.
Outside of that marvellous duo are three superb options in the midfield. Bundee Aki is a bustling ball-carrier with a delicate pair of hands, Garry Ringrose has the guile and pace to slice through any backline, and Robbie Henshaw can do it all. With that trio being fed by Sexton, Ireland can definitely harm opponents in the backs.
And who are the beneficiaries of their work? The lethal finishers that hand out wide. Stockdale is one of the deadliest wingers around, whilst Keith Earls has always known his way to the try-line.
There is clear reason to think this squad can show the last six months to be a blip; with few obvious areas of weakness, it must be mindset that has derailed them in recent times. All they need is the immense confidence that saw them take the All Black scalp last autumn. However, finding it is easier said than done.
By Ed Alexander